Co-create authentically with your community

Co-creation is one of the most effective ways for libraries to turn diversity, equity, and inclusion ideals into real-world services. Fundamentally, co-creation happens when the people who are most impacted by a service or program take the lead in developing and implementing it. It requires intentional time and resources around supporting the aspirations of systematically excluded communities. And these communities, not the library, determine what goals a project should reach for, what success looks like, and what actions are most likely to lead to that success.

To get started with or deepen partnerships for greater equity, consider three important elements of a co-creative approach.

#1 Focus on relationships

Library leaders are trying to stretch a limited pool of time and resources to serve a diverse community with a wide variety of priorities. When under pressure to do everything for everyone, it might be tempting to try to churn out as many concrete deliverables as possible, as quickly as possible. But in co-creation, the project deliverable is less important than the relationship.

The process is the product. Your work to initiate a relationship, grow it, and sustain it often begins well before anyone has imagined a specific project, takes up most of the focus during the project, and continues after the project ends. After all, projects come and go, but relationships based on trust can endure indefinitely.

Building and sustaining authentic relationships with systematically excluded communities requires an asset-based (sometimes called “strengths-based”) approach. Westernized social services and helping professions are often structured around a deficit mindset—the idea that communities that have experienced oppression have needs and problems, and today’s institutions have resources and solutions. This approach doesn’t build authentic relationships, even if a partner ultimately agrees to collaborate. Instead, this approach erases and ignores the brilliance, lived experience, and frequently longstanding work of communities to advocate for the solutions they already know are needed.

The alternative is an asset-based mindset, rooted in the principles of Asset-Based Community Development or ABCD. ABCD begins with the recognition that all people and communities have strengths, gifts, and capacities. There are no givers and takers—everyone contributes.

An asset-based mindset in library outreach is about approaching people with questions rather than answers. In other words, the switch is flipped from reaching out with the intention of reciting a long list of resources or of getting someone to sign up for a program. Instead, it’s important to listen and learn about that community’s or individual’s strengths, their brilliance, their dreams, their interrelationships, and the work they are already doing in the world.

Two tips to get started:

  • Identify and understand communities through asset mapping. This is a method for systematically naming the trusted leaders and strengths within a community—whether they are formal institutions, informal groups, or individual people—and the relationships between them. There are many methods of asset mapping, both literal and conceptual. A good starting point can be found in the Community Tool Box from the University of Kansas.
  • Have aspirations-focused discussions. When reaching out to a new potential connection, focus on their aspirations rather than on the library. What are their hopes and goals for their community over the next few years? What strengths, partners, and work are they already engaging to reach their goals? What support or resources would help them most? (One commonly used set of questions comes from the Libraries Transforming Communities Community Conversation Workbook, created by ALA and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.)

#2 Build alignment with your community

The next step is to look for alignment between community aspirations and the library’s purpose, scope, and capacity. For example, the library can provide information and research expertise, facilitate access and connection, plan public programs, and provide space and technology. In what ways might those resources be leveraged to help contribute to the community’s goals?

Real-world example: A mid-sized library system was conducting a community assessment. One part of the community had grown rapidly, changing from a primarily rural, agricultural community to a sprawling suburb. When staff had aspirations-based conversations with residents, people repeatedly talked about the lack of sidewalks. Because population growth had outpaced infrastructure development, people were entirely dependent on cars to get around, and felt isolated from their neighbors. If people wanted to advocate for sidewalks, the library could provide information about how infrastructure decisions were made and how to participate in the process. And if people were missing a sense of connection to their neighbors, the library could provide programs to bring people together. By focusing on where the library could play a unique role (in this case, through civic engagement information and social programming), it was able to stay true to its mission and capacity while also making an impact on big goals meaningful to the community.

Once areas of alignment have been identified between the community’s aspirations and the library’s strengths and mission, it’s time to go back to the community. A common mistake at this point is for the library to turn inward and try to implement the aligned program or project by itself. Acting alone fails to give the community real decision-making power to shape the result, which is also a missed opportunity for deep engagement, relationship-building, and co-developing services that are responsive in every aspect. Instead, go back to the community and ask if everything is right. Finally, invite the partner to participate in designing and implementing the resulting project.

One way to help identify areas of alignment between the community’s goals and the library’s capacity is the SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) assessment.

  • Strengths: What’s the library already good at and what resources does it already have?
  • Opportunities: What might the library do differently? What ideas and possibilities exist that it might not yet have explored?
  • Aspirations: What would success mean? What’s the change the library is hoping to support?
  • Results: What would making progress toward aspirations look like? What concrete signs could be measured or observed?

#3 Develop and implement services together

Once the library has built relationships and established a shared vision for meaningful work, it’s finally time to start planning and implementing. Resist the temptation to jump straight to this step. A foundation of trust and collective goals facilitates the effective, honest communication needed for true power-sharing.

Real-world example. To envision what a co-designed program might look like, consider King County Library System’s (KCLS) We Mean Business: Negocios Redondos events. These celebrations of Latinx/Latine entrepreneurship were co-created with the community. Before making any decisions, the team reached out to many different leaders in the Latinx/Latine small business community to ask what, if anything, they would want from an event. And, more importantly, if they would be a part of making one. Instead of an adults-only program, entire families were welcomed together. And instead of an informational panel, the library hosted a party—a celebration with food, raffle prizes, and interactive activities alongside informational content. Read more about the event here.

There are a number of techniques and frameworks that can help libraries and communities develop a process for making these decisions together. For example, design thinking or human-centered design offers an iterative approach that allows people to root decisions in an understanding of the user, move quickly, and learn by doing. Outcomes-based planning and evaluation begins with clearly defining the desired impact, then working backwards to determine what steps will be taken. The Community-Led Libraries Toolkit from Canada’s Working Together Project offers a framework for service planning, including a comparison of how this approach is similar to and different from the steps of traditional library-led planning. The 12 Steps to a Community-Led Library explains how to build organizational capacity to support and sustain this work.

Regardless of what process is used to develop shared understanding of the project, how work will get done, and how decisions will be made, write the results down. The document should clarify the project’s goals, how success will be measured, what the major milestones are, when they will happen, and who will be responsible for them. The purpose of writing these things down at the beginning of a project is not to set them in stone, it’s to open communication and give flexibility. By putting them in writing where everyone can see, it’s easier to discover and address mismatched assumptions or misunderstandings before they become problems.

Iteration is the process

While this article addresses co-design’s three pillars in a particular order, the process is iterative—a spiral, not an arrow. Throughout design and implementation, continuing to build relationships and trust will happen. Keep looking for alignment in each decision made as part of the process. Ultimately, the real deliverable is not the project itself, but the stronger relationship that’s been built. Deep, authentic connections with the community are what position the library for ongoing meaningful service and equity.

Join Audrey, Amita Lonial, Deputy Director, Tacoma Public Library, and Mia Henry, Founder and CEO of Freedom Lifted, on 30 January 2024 for the free, educational webinar, “Building Authentic Relationships with Underserved Communities.” You’ll learn how to go beyond transactional interactions and develop a plan for identifying, reaching, and building relationships with communities experiencing oppression.

And join Audrey along with Angel Jewel Tucker, Program Manager, Johnson County Library (KS), and Beck Tench, Senior Designer and Researcher, Center for Digital Thriving, Harvard Graduate School of Education (MA), on 27 February 2024 for the webinar, “Co-Creating Library Services for Transformative Impact.” In this session, you’ll learn about the fundamentals of co-design and explore how to apply them in your library for wildly creative and deeply impactful programs and services.